The four measures now move to the Senate for further consideration.

Measures that would ban lawmakers from taking donations while in session and increase transparency in Hawaii’s campaign finance system were unanimously approved with bipartisan support Tuesday in the House.

The four bills are the first batch of those aimed at reforming government transparency and ethics in the wake of federal felony charges being filed one year ago against two former lawmakers who took bribes from a Honolulu businessman.

Those public corruption cases and several others that followed spurred the House last year to create a Commission To Improve Standards of Conduct. The bills that passed Tuesday were proposed by the state Campaign Spending Commission, whose executive director also sat on the standards commission.

“We made a commitment as a House that we would take up measures that would help to address the public concern regarding corruption, and we would take up measures to improve transparency in an effort to improve public trust in our institution,” Rep. David Tarnas, chairman of the House Judiciary and Hawaiian Affairs Committee, said during a brief floor speech.

A key House committee voted to advance a ban on political donations during legislative sessions. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Gov. Josh Green signaled support for many of the transparency measures being considered this session on opening day saying that he planned to sign those that came to his desk.

The measures that cleared the House Tuesday all target some aspect of Hawaii’s political financing system. There was little discussion in the House before voting on the bills. Increasing government transparency was a goal of House Speaker Scott Saiki as well as the House’s minority Republican caucus.

The four measures now move to the Senate for further consideration.

House Bill 89 would ban all elected officials from soliciting and accepting campaign donations while the Legislature is in session, which is typically from January through May. The ban also applies to special sessions. At least 28 states have some limitations on campaign donations during the legislative session.

Some like Nevada, ban campaign fundraising for a period 30 days before and 30 days after each legislative session. The Nevada ban extends to the governor and other elected officials who may be deciding on whether to approve or veto legislation.

Last year, the Hawaii Legislature banned fundraising events during the legislative session, but lawmakers still managed to raise more than $500,000 despite the lack of fundraisers.

House Bill 90 would require candidates and political action groups to file public notices for fundraising events no matter the amount of donations being requested. Currently, the law only requires notices for events that require donations of $25 or more per person.

House Bill 93 would require the campaign spending commission to publish the names of candidate campaigns and political action groups that don’t file a required report that lists the names and contact information for the committee’s officers.

House Bill 99 would limit cash donations to $100 or less during an election period, which could run for two to four years depending on the race. At a Feb. 1 hearing on the measure, some lawmakers had concerns that the measure could limit donations from people who don’t use checks or credit cards and preferred cash.

Gary Kam, the campaign spending commission’s general counsel, said the point of limiting those kinds of donations is that cash is harder to trace.

Commission to Improve Standards of Conduct panelist Robert Harris conducts meeting. Left, Commission to Improve Standards of Conduct panelist Nikos Leverenz casts a vote.
Nikos Leverenz, left, and state Ethics Commission Director Robert Harris sat on the Commission to Improve Standards of Conduct last year. Some of the commission’s proposals are advancing in the House. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022)

The campaign spending bills, as well as many of the standards commission proposals, were fast-tracked through the House and only assigned to one committee.

In an interview after the House floor votes, Tarnas said his strategy in approaching the government transparency bills has been to hear measures from the Ethics Commission, Campaign Spending Commission and Office of Elections first before scheduling hearings for the standards commission’s measures, which he said is the next step.

Some of those bills already have moved out of his committee. Regardless, he said he still plans to give the standards commission bills hearings but may defer those that already passed in another form. He said he’s also taking the time during hearings to explain his reasoning behind various measures.

“It’s important for us to be upfront with the public on all this, I need to lead by example,” Tarnas said.

The House Judiciary and Hawaiian Affairs Committee has a hearing scheduled Wednesday afternoon on several standards commission bills dealing with elections, the cost of public records, public financing for elections, grants for county ethics commissions and term limits for lawmakers.

The Senate has its own set of transparency bills, but Senate Judiciary Chairman Karl Rhoads, Tarnas’ counterpart in that chamber, said he plans to wait for most of the commission’s bills and related measures to cross over from the House before giving them hearings.

The bills passed Tuesday with bipartisan support, with six Republicans all voting “yes.” Advancing government reform was a priority for the House GOP this year.

House Minority Leader Lauren Matsumoto said targeting campaign spending was a good first step and she looks forward to seeing the rest of the standard’s commission proposals passing.

She’s also waiting to see if the House adopts a wide range of rule changes proposed by the standards commission. Those rules are set by House leadership, including Matsumoto, just after the election, but a final copy hasn’t been circulated yet.

The commission recommended new rules on how potential conflicts of interest are handled and put forward other suggestions on possibly requiring committee chairs to explain their reasons for unilaterally killing certain bills.

Government reform is now at the top of mind for many residents in the state, Matsumoto said.

“We’re hearing it pretty loud and clear. We lost the trust of the people, and now is the time to really put in some significant changes to make sure we regain that trust,” she said.

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